Tag Archives: biography

The League of Extraordinarily Funny Women: 50 Trailblazers of Comedy by Sheila Moeschen

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The League of Extraordinarily Funny Women: 50 Trailblazers of Comedy by Sheila Moeschen

Moeschen, Sheila. The League of Extraordinarily Funny Women: 50 Trailblazers of Comedy. Running Press Adult, 2019. ISBN 978-0762466641 232 pp. $20

*****

I just finished binging The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, and have been wondering who she was based on and who her real-life influences were besides Lenny Bruce and Moms Mabley. While neither question is addressed in this collective biography, it was a nice transition from the the show.

Self-proclaimed comedy nerd Sheila Moeschen presents this browseable, humorous and highly readable overview of fifty famous female comics: their start, their breakout roles, their signature jokes, their often! acclaimed and award-winning work, their influences, and for some, their legacy. Ladies are grouped by ten in no particular order in each section: intellectual comics, character comics, controversial comics, misfit comics, and trailblazers. The book showcases Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller and Moms Mabley; Gilda Radner, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy; Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler, among others.

Each section opens with an overview to introduce the category, and includes additional names that couldn’t included with full bios due to limited space. Icons are mixed in with up & comers. The cast of characters is refreshingly diverse by age, location, ethnicity, and sexuality. Best of all, while occasionally partners are identified, most of the bios focus on career only, and the merit of the woman’s achievement.

Moeschen is quick with a quip and funny in her own right, and so are YOU, evidenced by the YOU that is the last person listed in the book under the “Extra Extraordinaires” block that lists even more funny women in the final chapter, and the afterword reiterates to the reader no, really! YOU are funny, too!

No sources are cited, and a short, non-annotated reading list follows. A timeline and index are lacking, and would be helpful to include if there is indeed, a sequel.

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

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Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

Samuelsson, Marcus. Yes, Chef. Random House, 2012. ISBN 978-0385342605 336 pp. $

****

World-renowned master chef Marcus Samuelsson shares his story in an engaging and straightforward manner, opening with what he doesn’t know about the birth mother he barely remembers, and coming full circle to conclude with a visit back to Ethiopia, the country he fled with his family in his youth.

His African heritage coupled with being raised by his adopted parents in Sweden are the pivotal circumstances that ultimately lead to him becoming a chef who wonders, why not? when it comes to pairing flavors from several cultures. Samuelsson relates stories of cooking with his grandmother, cooking for his father on fishing trips, and working in restaurants before pursuing a formal education in cooking school that resulted in an appointment at the award-winning Swedish restaurant Aquavit in NYC, and his own venture, the Red Rooster, in Harlem. It all clarifies his food point of view beautifully.

Samuelsson has a strong personality, and the televised food competitions he has partaken in have not always shown him in the most flattering light. It’s fascinating to read about his upbringing, and come to understand what made him the man he is today. He is a good storyteller, and comes across as honest, even when it’s not flattering, and he doesn’t make excuses or pull punches.

The book is sure to appeal to foodies (and Food Network TV fans), or those looking for another insightful piece on the restaurant industry akin to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.

We Beat the Street: How a Friendship Led to Success by Sharon Draper et al.

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We Beat the Street: How a Friendship Led to Success by Sharon Draper et al.

Draper, Sharon et al. We Beat the Street: How a Friendship Led to Success. Puffin, 2006. ISBN 978-0142406274. 194 pp. $6.99

***

Coretta Scott King award-winner Sharon Draper pieces together three lives that intertwined when a trio of friends made an agreement to keep one another on the straight and narrow. The narrative bounces back and forth from “as told to” with dialogue recreations to short reflective essays from the young men about the events being retold.

For Sampson, a positive encounter with a doctor who took time to answer the questions of an inquisitive six-year old sparked an interest in medicine. An elementary school teacher who taught students from the ghetto about Shakespeare encouraged George to consider college. Rameck dreamed of being an actor, but there wasn’t enough money to pay the electric bill, let alone fund new shoes and portfolio photographs. Childhoods filled with absent parents and longing for success were peppered with rivalry, gunfire and petty crime. Through sports and shared classes, the three came together to share music, laughs and dreams.

Junior year, the three friends were cutting up in math class when the teacher suggested they take themselves to the college presentation at the library. “What started out as three high school boys skipping class turned out to be the most significant event in our lives,” says George. In spite of their desire to attend college and make something more of their lives, it was all too easy to fall into trouble in their Newark neighborhood. Assault and battery and robbery earned both Rameck and Sampson time in a detention center.

Ultimately, they achieved their dreams and are an inspiration to young people of all backgrounds. Information about their foundation, which provides health fairs, leadership training and mentoring, is included in the conclusion. File under career, collective biographies, or your self-help-inspirational section.

Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson illus. by Ernie Colón

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Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson illus. by Ernie Colón

Jacobson, Sid, illus. by Ernie Colón. Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography. Hill and Wang, 2010. ISBN 978-0809026852 160 pp. $18

This graphic biography chronicles the life of the Nazi movement (beginning with Germany in WWI) and its rise to power, and the life of Anne Frank (beginning with her parent’s courtship) and her development from carefree girlhood to pensive adolescent, culminating with the Armistice and Anne’s death at Auschwitz, just a few weeks before the end of WWII.

Each chapter contains at least one “snapshot:” a 1/3 to full page that, like a sidebar, imparts some background information, like a family tree with portraits drawn from photographs, a map that shows the territories in control of each of the combatants, and a page on concentration camps. The snapshots break up the narrative of Anne’s life and the progression of the Nazi movement.

The text is well-supported with facts and primary source material, such as interviews with concentration camp survivors, and of course, excerpts from Anne’s diary itself. The creators occasionally put undocumented thoughts into the character’s heads, and I was left wondering how they KNEW that’s what the person was thinking at the time.

The layout is very orderly, a classic 2 panel by 3 panel formation. Style varies slightly from page to page, employing the classic left to right Z formation for reading. A few split screen style illustrations show what various characters are doing, within the same timeframe. One especially clever panel on pg. 104 uses the spread of an airplane’s wings to transition a scene. Perspectives vary, making use of techniques such as silhouette, closeups, angles, and aerials, only the text breaks out of the neat boxes, and there are plenty of opportunities–chaotic moments–for such deviation. Chapter headings have unique full page illustrations with interesting angles.

The artist employs traditional devices such as a lightning bolt shaped speech bubble for speech coming from a radio, and puffy cloud like speech bubbles to indicate thoughts instead of spoken words. The somber hues of the artwork–especially the gray and beige of the concentration camps–are effective at setting mood, while the browns and golds lend an old-fashioned and historical feel. Many illustrations are beautifully rendered reproductions from actual photographs: of the building at 263 Prinsegracht, of emaciated prisoners in the camps, of Otto Frank. Several, rendered in grayscale, pack a real punch, forcing the reader to stop and contemplate the significance of the action captured. Anne’s palette shifts from pink, purple and white as a young girl to more sober maroons, browns and blues as a teen. The soft, hazy style of the illustrations on page 74 of rooms in the annex (devoid of their inhabitants) has a nostalgic, nearly ghostly feel; the same technique, employed in sepia on pg 139, is nothing short of haunting.

The chronology at the end of the book juxtaposes two timelines: Anne’s family (in black ink) and WWII (in red ink). Sources are credited on the final page, with only one suggestion for further explanation (the museum website).

I think this well-intentioned book would be a much more satisfying read if it had stronger art/editorial direction; it suffers from a textbook-like tone in too many places for the reader to become lost in the very powerful story of Anne’s life. In spite of the objective tone, the images in chapter 9, “Discovery” are absolutely heartwrenching. Chapter 10, The Story Lives On, chronicles the one surviving member of the eight who hid in the annex, and how Anne’s diary not only went on to see the light of day, but was made into a play and a film, translated into over 70 languages, and achieved her dream of someday becoming a writer.

I feel strongly that delivery is too lecturey in tone, and unfortunately diminishes the appeal of this book. In spite of the popularity of Anne’s story, the tragic appeal, the message about peace, harmony and acceptance. It’s not a balanced enough piece to warrant 5 stars. It has too much of a souvenir feel, like the book was commissioned to sell in the gift shop at the Anne Frank House to teach people about Anne’s life.

Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

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Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

Halpern, Justin. Sh*t My Dad Says. It Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0061992704 176 pp. $16.99

Not what I expected–I follow Justin’s often hilarious Twitter stream, and was pleasantly surprised this is well-written and well-composed–anecdotes that reveal character, and not just a rehashing of the set-in-the- present Twitter stream. Chapters are arranged mostly in chronological order of Justin’s life. In between each chapter are half a dozen stand-alone quotes of his dad’s ramblings, some recollected from childhood. Although one or two in each group may be familiar, this doesn’t have the feel of a revamp. There were many laugh-out-loud moments. I especially love the warm portrayal of a father who may sometimes think Justin is a bonehead, but will still stand up for him. Justin is admiringly fearless in showing his dumb moments, and what he learned from them. This memoir finishes on a highly appealing note, with just the right blend of poignancy and funny.

The Kindle version doesn’t have the photos! Thankfully, they are posted on Amazon. Hilarious!

This is a book with wide appeal, because there are a lot of universals here: first fight, first girlfriend, first self-discovery, the family road trip… it’s a hard book to put down, and it’s an easy, breezy read. I can see it being reassuring that no matter how tough life feels sometimes, you’ll get through it and maybe even find a bit of humor. I think funny books get a bad rap. Humor is HARD to write, and write well, and I never feel like Justin’s going for a cheap laugh, or just making crap up. it’s great to find a funny book that is genuine and not filled with hyperbole (Chelsea Handler) or shock value (Sarah Silverman).

Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate by Mark Oppenheimer

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Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate by Mark Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer, Mark. Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate. Free Press, 2009. ISBN ‎ 978-1439128640 256 pp. $

I got about 75 pages into Wisenheimer and stopped–I put it down because I felt that for someone who is supposedly so gifted with a huge vocabulary and inquisitive nature, this was sort of a dull read–and I WAS the sort of kid that Mark was.

Wisenheimer is about a boy who can’t keep his mouth shut and loves to argue–he finds a home in debate club, and regales readers with stories of how he got into trouble for being a smart aleck in his youth. There is some humor, some pathos, some blow-by-blow accounting of debate matches… but I didn’t find anything particularly dramatic or engaging, even in for example, his retelling of how a prank phone call landed him in hot water. A sense of “lessons learned” is missing from the narrative thus far.

Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book by The Nelson Mandela Foundation

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Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book by The Nelson Mandela Foundation

The Nelson Mandela Foundation. Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book. W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. ISBN 978-0393336467 208 pp. $

**

This comic book format biography seems a little propaganda like to me, with it’s official endorsement and preface containing a speech Mandela delivered to launch the comic books series in 2005. The volume covers Mandela’s life story but is overly inspirational.

I read the first chapter, about two dozen pages. The artwork is nothing extraordinary, and the tone is a bit didactic.

Different Like Coco by Elizabeth Matthews

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Different Like Coco by Elizabeth Matthews

Matthews, Elizabeth. Different Like Coco.  Candlewick Press, 2007. 32 pp.  ISBN 978-0-7636-2548-1. $16.99

****

More than anything, Coco Chanel’s life story is a tale about using what you’ve got and and building on your strengths and resources. Schooled by French nuns, ambitious Coco, a charity case, learned early to emulate the bearing of the well-to-do so she could insert herself into certain circles to make smart connections. Matthews avoids the seemier aspects of Chanel’s life, and accentuates the positives, like her challenging of social boundaries.

Told with charm, Matthews hooks readers fast with this rags to riches story. Vocabulary opportunities abound and will prompt dialogical reading. A quick scan of online biographies reveal some minor discrepancies, but Coco loved to invent stories, including about herself; it’s no surprise there is not agreement on her date and place of birth, whether she wore her scissors on a ribbon or string of pearls, or if the item of clothing she hacked apart to make a cardigan was a pullover or a blazer.

The endpapers set a tone of unfussy style: black with high-contrast white script quotes from Coco about character: fashion, individuality, etc. Inside, the illustrations are a pen and ink and watercolors, done up in a cartoony style that manages to be lean, whimsical and elegant.  Careful attention to detail is evident in period clothing and cars. Mostly muted tones lend a squelched feeling the to book that undermine the vibrant personality described, though, the famously unique designer stands out from the crowd on every page.

A short timeline extends the biography by appending details such as fashion milestones (the debut of the little black dress, the first perfume bearing a designer’s name) and the date of her death. A bibliography is book-centric, with only one Internet link to her Time Life biography. Recommended for larger collections.

review by Beth Gallaway

Dizzy by Jonah Winter illus. by Sean Qualls

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Dizzy by Jonah Winter illus. by Sean Qualls

Winter, Jonah illus. by Sean Qualls. Dizzy. Arthur A. Levine, 2006. ISBN 978-0439507370 48 pp. $

****

Jonah Winter recreates a bebop sound with words in this energetic picture book biography of innovative jazz legend, Dizzy Gillepsie. Following the scrappy fighter turned musician (who used his music to release his anger and frustrations) from his roots in the deep South all the way to the bright lights of the city that never sleeps, Winter’s text imitates the stylings of its subject as the poetic narrative rhymes, repeats, skips, dances and even breaks in an occasional scat or “bebop!”

Illustrator Qualls provides a vibrant accompaniment of cool pink, grey, brown, purple and blue. Soft shapes and polka dots are punctuated with darker red and sharp edges. The perspective shifts (dizzyingly?) from straight in the first few scenes to tilted just a bit, and the change in angles gives even the pictures an off-the-cuff, jazzy, improvised tone. Scenes become more and more collage like as Dizzy remains the leit motif throughout. Even the text can’t keep still and begins to leap to the beat of the words, stretching to all caps font, snaking up and away across the page, changing color, and adding extra characters for emphasis.

An extensive author’s note fills in details only alluded to in the poem. Lack of timeline or bibliography make this a jumping off point only for school reports, but Dizzy is a delight to look at and listen to all on its own merit.

Blackbeard the Pirate King by J. Patrick Lewis

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Blackbeard the Pirate King by J. Patrick Lewis

Lewis, J. Patrick. Blackbeard the Pirate King. National Geographic, 2006. SBN 978-0792255857 32 pp. $16.95

****

Part biography, part legend and all poetry, this picture book defines the famed and feared dread pirate Captain Teach in all his swashbuckling glory. “Apprentice Pirate” tells of Teach’s early life, while “In the Wake of the Sloops” details spoils of plundered merchant ships in luxurious detail. Lewis conveys the romance of the high seas with vivacity and drama from the first (“…Teach heard them call longingly–/the sirens of the sea”) to the last (“…As he staggered, bloody, lifeless, to the boards”).

Occasionally, the rhyme scheme stretches the meter to discomfort, as in “The Queen Anne’s Revenge:”  “‘The Brethren of the Coast,’” Pirates/No country could contain/loved stealing gold/And seas patrolled–/To a man they hated Spain.” For the most part, Lewis shows mastery of poetic forms and evocative command of language. The sextilla “The Blockade of Charleston” very effectively uses its galloping eight-syllable lines to convey the drama of Blackbeard’s tyrannization of a city for medical supplies.

The poems are accompanied by artist’s renditions of the pirate king. Works by Pyle, Wyeth and Schoonover are interspersed with more contemporary artists such as Farrell and Kelley. The mediums vary delightfully from woodcut to oils to acrylic, and each image seems perfectly matched to the depiction.

A historical footnote sets each tale in context. An author’s note, map and timeline add depth. Illustration credits are noted at the back, and a short bibliography of books and websites offers sources and further reading, making this an exceedingly well-documented volume of poetry. The pirate theme is sure to be popular; purchase to round out your poetry or pirate collection.